Addressing criticisms: Ancient religious texts and temple worship
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While temple worship is a prominent and unique characteristic of the Church, there are numerous similarities to it in ancient religious texts and traditions throughout the world, said the closing speaker at the two-day FAIR Conference Aug. 7.
Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU, is an outspoken defender of Mormonism and a perennial speaker at the annual conference sponsored by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, an independent group that seeks to refute charges leveled at the doctrines, practices and leaders of the Church.
Brother Peterson's topic was "The Temple as a Place of Ascent to God." He said ascent is a motif that finds expression throughout the ancient world.
"You find it in the New Testament," he said. "For example, 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul tells in modest language what is probably his own experience." The passage speaks of a man "caught up into the third heaven" who "heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter."
A concept in Hebrew cosmology involving three heavens underlies Paul's experience, Brother Peterson said. "It also, I think, is clearly related to some other things we know about: the idea of a celestial, terrestrial and telestial kingdom," he added.
"The idea of going up literally into the presence of God is common throughout the New Testament and the Bible itself," he said. "It's also common to the Book of Mormon." He cited the account in 3 Nephi 28:10, 12-17 of three Nephite disciples of Jesus who had an experience similar to the one described by Paul.
Brother Peterson referred to Old Testament passages, Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-5, that speak of ascending to the "mountain of the Lord," what Latter-day Saints believe is an allusion to the temple and its ordinances.
"The 'mountain of the Lord's house' was sometimes really a mountain," he said. "If you didn't have a 'Lord's house,' you had a mountain." He noted that in ancient times it was common for mountains to be associated with the presence of God and for artificial mountains to be built by people trying to attain that presence.
In their westward trek, the Mormon pioneers would sometimes go into mountains to pray, he said. "When they got to the Salt Lake Valley, before they were able to build the Endowment House, they went up onto Ensign Peak" to receive temple ordinances, he said.
"The tower of Babel is probably an artificial mountain, a kind of ersatz temple, an attempt to falsify or forge the rituals that would get one into the presence of God," he remarked.
Brother Peterson said Psalms 120-134 are known as "songs of ascent" or, in the King James Bible, "songs of degrees."
"These were songs that were sung by people who were coming up to the mountain of the Lord's house, Jerusalem," he said. "Jerusalem is literally on a mountain ridge. If you're coming up from Jericho, or from the sea coast over on the Mediterranean, you're climbing up to Jerusalem, and it's a pretty steep climb in some places. Then, the temple itself was thought to be the Lord's mountain in the tops of the mountains."
If those psalms are read with this in mind, they make a lot of sense, he said. "Jerusalem is literally 2,500 feet above sea level."
Throughout his presentation, Brother Peterson showed projected images of ascension motifs in disparate religious cultures, some of them bearing similarity to elements of Latter-day Saint temple worship.
"This kind of common ascension ideology exists all around the ancient world everywhere: China, ancient Greece, the Islamic world, Egypt, Babylonia, the Americas, India, Ethiopia," he said. "It's astonishing how common it is, which, to my mind, suggests that it goes back to either real experiences or real rituals ... or both, as the most plausible suggestion of the commonalities that exist."
Such commonalities are plausible support for the authenticity of the LDS doctrine of exaltation in the presence of God, Brother Peterson said.
"It's remarkable that Joseph Smith restored these ancient models from the ancient world, living in 19th century America," he said. "We as Latter-day Saints who aspire to defend and sustain the kingdom (of God) should be aware of the riches we've been given. It's not only a matter of defending it; we should live it and observe it ourselves and treasure what's been given to us. It's far more than we deserve or merit. It's the grace of God that gives it to us."
He testified that the blessings that have been promised are beyond comprehension. "I can't imagine anything more fulfilling, more wonderful than what we've been given in the gospel, even though we seldom appreciate it in its fulness. It's worthy of living; it's worthy of defending."